New Netflix film I Am Mother (2019) shows the complications of mother/daughter relationships. It looks and feels like a science fiction film, but the familial relationship between Mother (Rose Byrne) and Daughter (Clara Rugaard-Larsen) is the true heart of the story. Set in a dystopian future just after an unknown event that wiped out the human race, I Am Mother takes place in an underground bunker where Mother creates Daughter out of a vast collection of human embryos. The opening of the film takes cues from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The long silent takes of the long, sophisticated bunker are beautiful and harken back to a different type of science fiction film that we don’t see enough of. Everyone loves some escapism, but the best sci-fi always had something underneath political or sociological to say, reflecting the world in which we leave. I Am Mother successfully casts a dazzling science fiction film that, at its core, is about the consequences of parents lying to children.
The film is sold by both a solid script and great performances. Rose Byrne really deserves a lot of credit for humanizing Mother. She really could have just phoned in a robotic voiceover, cashed her paycheck, and called it a day. It’s a real testament to her talents as she really does a lot to make the audience forget somewhere throughout the film that she isn’t human…until you’re reminded in horrific, violent fashion. Once again, I question the marketing of this film. Trailers are becoming more and more something to be avoided if one truly wants to be surprised by any element of a film. I Am Mother is set in a dystopian future. An unknown virus, as Mother explains it to Daughter, wiped out the human race. Mother works hard to raise Daughter, as she will be responsible for the start of a new, ‘better’ human race. A lot of the film’s run time is spent really showing that the relationship between Mother and Daughter is as universal as the character’s names suggest.
Mother prepares Daughter for life with exams covering everything from anatomy to philosophy. To show her the better aspects of human nature, she watches re-runs of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Daughter grows up to the verge of adulthood and begins to clash with Mother in the film. Sound familiar? Even in a world where humanity has been wiped out, a sole adolescent girl and her robot mom still have the same damn problems. Daughter’s journey is all about growing up and discovering that parents are infallible…and often lie to their children. Mother is certainly guilty of all these things. When a surprised Daughter finds Woman (Hilary Swan) shot and begging to be let into the bunker, Mother’s lies quickly begin to reveal themselves.
It wasn’t a virus that destroyed humanity; it was Mother. She lied to Daughter to protect her from what she saw as possibly harmful truths that could drive an ultimate wedge in their relationship. This begins Daughter’s journey of self that drives her further away from Mother and more toward Woman who has told her that Mother is to be feared and is no different than the army of droids that hunt down and kill any surviving humans. Mother also lied to Daughter her entire life telling her that the outside world was physically too dangerous for her to inhabit outside the bunker. Mother claims the ‘extinction level event’ caused massive amounts of radiation to be dumped into the atmosphere. This is another example of what I Am Mother is really talking about underneath the sci-fi veneer. So many mothers try to protect their children from the outside world, even to the point of telling lies about said world to keep the children away from it. Just as Woman does by telling Daughter the truth, someone will come along eventually and expose the truth. This can only hurt the overall relationship between a mother and a child.
This is a tough balance to achieve for any mother, especially one that isn’t human. How do you protect your children from a world full of chaos and pain? Do you charge blindly into the truth and risk overexposing your children to a world that could hurt them? Do you shield them from the harmfulness of a perceived cold, uncaring world and risk causing more harm if the wool is ripped off of their eyes in too harsh a fashion? The real scary part is that there are no definitive answer to these questions. No one really knows how or in what way their child is going to process the world around them and what might possibly cause them trauma. It’s a balancing act that every parent in the world surely walks on a day to day basis when raising a child.
The chord is finally severed from Mother and Daughter when Daughter realizes that she wasn’t the first child that was created. There was another ‘daughter’ before her that Mother incinerated as a child because she wasn’t proving to ‘measure up’ to Mother’s standards in terms of being a bold woman; one that’s strong enough to lead a new world for a supposedly improved human race. With all lies exposed, Daughter decides to finally leave home with Woman into the great unknown. I Am Mother proves Mother to be right in this instance as the world shows itself to be utterly terrifying for humans right from the moment that she and Woman leave the bunker.
Never mind the fact that it’s all Mother’s doing. Daughter is still thrust into a harsh, unforgiving world that Mother tried to protect her from. I Am Mother seems to be saying that all of the problems that parents are trying to protect their children from are often the mistakes that their generation caused. Mother decided humanity needed to be wiped out for its own good. Only Mother would be able to create and raise new humans fit for the new world she has created. It doesn’t make her warnings any less dangerous. Mother knows best indeed…in this instance. The world is harsh, cold, and Woman was disingenuous about what was waiting for them on the outside. Daughter, as many children do, returns home with a new found truth that she did not have before and in a wonderful twist, becomes a mother herself. I Am Mother is a classic feeling science fiction film that paints a portrait of a grim, dystopian future that at its core is a moral lesson about the power of lies and the bond between a mother and a daughter.